They Hunger (for calories): A review of the Zombies, Run! app

Gamification, as a word, is a linguistic Frankenstein. Look at it: an abominable amalgamation of six consonants and six vowels stitched together in a marketing laboratory somewhere, probably jolted to life by exposing the slab on which its lifeless husk lay to a lightning storm. The word is visually hideous, and it lurches off your tongue like a reanimated corpse. It’s a neologism only a mad scientist could love.

As a concept, I detest it. Some, for example, want to “gameify” education, making levels and high scores the goal instead of character formation and enrichment of knowledge. Others have considered gamifying the workplace in order to pacify disgruntled employees in tedious jobs, giving tasks a game-like veneer in a cruel bid to inject faux accomplishment into their vocation. Gamification also turns everyday life into a Skinner Box,  a closed environment where the user is conditioned to seek the pleasurable stimulus of reward. (That’s how modern games are designed by the way. Check it out. It’s freaky as hell.)

So when I stumbled across Zombies, Run! (Android and iOS), an exercise app for runners that gamifies your run, I said Pshaw. Pshaw! But, if nothing else, I am open-minded and overweight, so I figured I’d give it a spin. 

Turns out, it’s awesome—but not because it’s a game. Zombies, Run! is really a serial radio drama, divided into episodes and seasons, where the user is the star. Each episode casts you as “Runner 5,” a helpfully gender-neutral hero enlisted to undertake missions on foot across zombie infested wastelands. It’s typical zombie apocalypse stuff, which has been done to death (!) over the years, but the app’s seamless synthesis of training and narrative made my trial run a great deal of fun.

Every time you go out on a run, you start a new episode. The story is fed to the player through audio clips that play at intervals that vary depending on how long you set your run. The default setting is a 40+ minute run, but you can knock it down for a shorter run that still plays the whole episode. You press play, the app tells you to start running, and then it begins the narrative. Again, it’s pretty generic zombie stuff, but I still don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice to say, in short order the app informs you that you are outside the no-zombie safety zone and you’ve got to haul butt back to the heavily fortified camp. Your guide, a friendly radio operator with a pleasant English accent, cuts in every few minutes to inform you of zombie locations and to drip feed you exposition.

The nearest comparison I have for the experience is that it’s like a theme park ride where you, a random schmuck strapped into a frightening machine by a bored teenager, become a participant (or the hero!) of the story that unfurls during the ride. Think of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones rides at Disneyland. Zombies, Run! is a bit like that, except instead of a 30-second rollercoaster you waited two hours for, your “ride” is your preferred running trail. 

The cast features a few different voice actors, all of whom deliver surprisingly engaging performances. I expected wince-inducing amateurs, but these guys were anything but. Then again, they are mostly English, and if you say anything in an English accent I automatically assume it’s bloody brilliant. The star of voiced cast is your radio guide. He’s initially humorous and charming, but he displays impressive depth in darker moments.

A large part of the app’s appeal depends on your willingness to let your imagination come along for the run. When a character says “You’re running towards a tower!” when you are in fact shambling through a distinctly tower-less area, you either let your mind sketch an edifice on the horizon or you get elbowed out of the experience. When they say you’re discovering documents vital to the survival of mankind in an abandoned hospital that’s been repurposed as a zombie swinger’s club but in reality you’re sipping water from an oddly stained public fountain, well, you know, let your brain do its thing.

This also goes for the optional interval training mode. Called Zombie Chases, this mode urges the user to increase his or her pace for short, intensive periods by throwing zombies on your tail. They groan louder in your earbuds and a “pinging” sound (very reminiscent of Aliens) alerts you that they are drawing closer. In the episode I ran, these intensive periods seemed to correspond to story developments, which was pretty nifty. If they catch you, by the way, they eat your underwear.

This is where the “game” part comes in. Packaged in with the audio drama is a Farmville-vish town management sim. As you run, the app randomly informs you that you’ve collected some miscellaneous post-apocalyptic refuse—a first aid kit, an axe, some underwear, etc. Together, this junk goes into a resource pool used to build and expand your home base. If you fail to pick up the pace during Zombie Chases, you lose some of the digital garbage you collected, and thus you lose some of your building resources. The game doesn’t seem particularly robust; you gather jetsam to grow your base so you can gather more jetsam to grow your base more. Fortunately, it’s entirely optional, and you can disable the YOU’VE FOUND SOME UNDERPANTS! notifications.

As I said above, the story is fed to you in bits during your run. Between those story bits, there is nothing, not even zombie-themed ambient muzak. Bless their hearts, the designers included integration with other apps like Spotify to let users customize their own eschatologically themed soundtrack. Don’t be a lunatic like me and listen to a podcast on theology, though, or any sort of dialogue-based podcast; it’s discordant as heck when one second you’ve got Derek Rishmawy chattering about liturgy and the next someone’s screaming in your ear about a horde of ravenous zeds. Keep to music. Might I recommend the theme song to the ultimate tale of rising from the dead?

As a running app, I enjoyed the heck out of my time with Zombies, Run!, and I’ll probably stick with it. The free version gets you four episodes to start and then unlocks a new one every week. If you pony up for the Pro subscription ($2.99/mo or $19.99/year), you’ll get access to all episodes immediately, customizable Zombie Chases (i.e., different intervals), more detailed run statistics and some other junk that didn’t seem very interesting.

At zero dollars, it can’t hurt to try it. Well, it can hurt if you’re an idiot named Chris who wore a cotton shirt on a chilly day that sawed right through his nipple and OH GOD ZOMBIES CAN SMELL THE BLOOD RUN FOR YOUR LIVES